horseless carriages and smartphones

We have a tendency to not be able to comprehend emerging transformative technologies. Rather we tend to only be able to reason about them in a very limited way in terms of current well-understood technologies.

Kevin Kelly talks about this in his recent book What Technology Wants:

We make prediction [of the consequences of a new technology] more difficult because our immediate tendency is to imagine the new thing doing an old job better. That’s why the first cars were called “horseless carriages.” The first movies were simply straightforward documentary films of theatrical plays. It took a while to realize the full dimensions of cinema photography as its own new medium that could achieve new things, reveal new perspectives, do new jobs. We are stuck in the same blindness. We imagine e-books today as being regular books that appear on electronic paper instead of as radically powerful threads of text woven into the one shared universal library.

Paul Graham also spoke about this eloquently in his article “Tablets“:

I was thinking recently how inconvenient it was not to have a general term for iPhones, iPads, and the corresponding things running Android. The closest to a general term seems to be “mobile devices,” but that (a) applies to any mobile phone, and (b) doesn’t really capture what’s distinctive about the iPad.

After a few seconds it struck me that what we’ll end up calling these things is tablets. The only reason we even consider calling them “mobile devices” is that the iPhone preceded the iPad. If the iPad had come first, we wouldn’t think of the iPhone as a phone; we’d think of it as a tablet small enough to hold up to your ear.

Like many engineers I know, I have a sort of “goofiness radar” where my mind intuits that something isn’t quite right, whether it’s a goofy term or a goofy technology or a goofy design decision. When I was younger I assumed I must be missing something and I would try harder to understand. This often led to frustration because the problem was not my understanding, but rather that I was encountering actual goofiness. As I get older and more experienced, I trust myself more and assume that if something doesn’t make intuitive sense, it’s highly likely that I’m not the problem – there is goofiness afoot.

I often get this feeling when I hear terms like “smartphone” or “3D printer” that, if you think about them for about a minute, are pretty terrible in terms of conveying the significance and potential of the technology.

The unfortunate thing is not that the terms are goofy. The unfortunate thing is that these anachronisms actually constrain our imaginations.

From a more positive perspective, if we can spot these sorts of terms in use today, it might enable us to spot transformative technologies that are not yet generally understood to be transformative, which can obviously lead to interesting opportunities.

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